Ethel's story: Documentarian Rory Kennedy offers personal film portrait of her mother
In a career reaching back to 1999, Emmy-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy has tackled topics as varied as the AIDS pandemic and poverty in Appalachia. But until now she has never focused on her own family. Ethel, which premiered on HBO on Oct. 18 and is currently playing in theatres in New York and Los Angeles, takes a personal look at the lives of her parents, Ethel and Robert Kennedy.
Their lives were intertwined with some of the most significant events of the 20th century, from the McCarthy era blacklist in the 1950s to the civil-rights movement a decade later. Like his brother John, Robert Kennedy was assassinated while serving his country. Both tragedies had enormous impact on the politics of the nation.
What sets Ethel apart from other Kennedy documentaries is how it focuses squarely on Ethel herself, revealing for the first time in years a disarming, mischievous but tough-minded personality who at one time captivated the country.
The youngest of 11 children, Rory Kennedy was born six months after her father's death. Talking from an office in Los Angeles, she describes how she resisted efforts from Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, to make a movie about her mother. Rory admits that her mother was reluctant as well.
"My mother hasn't done an interview in 25 years," she reveals. "She's never told her whole life story, largely because she really doesn't like to do interviews. She is very much a person who lives in the moment, who looks to the future. She is not particularly introspective."
Or as Ethel Kennedy tells the camera, "Introspection—I hate it."
To get her mother to talk about her life, Rory Kennedy adopted a different tone and style from her previous documentaries. "This is very much a point-of-view film, a daughter's perspective of her mother, inside a family that lived on the front lines of a lot of historical events," she says. "If you go in expecting it to be a typical documentary, with experts making arguments—it's not that kind of film."
Rory interviewed her mother on camera for five days, and at times it was a struggle. "For my first question, my mother said, 'Why do I have to answer that?'" she remembers. "And the truth is my mother didn't answer a lot of the questions in a conventional way, so we had to figure out a way to work with her material."
During editing Rory decided to include reaction shots of herself. "It's not something I'm inclined to do, but at some point I felt like it was part of the story, and it would be weird not to include it. But I still had to contend with a lot of decisions. Was my voice going to be 'just the facts'? How much do I explain myself? What role was I playing?"
Research was key in preparing for interviews. First Rory wrote a 50-page outline of Ethel Kennedy's life. Then she compiled 70 pages of questions about her childhood, her personal life, meeting Robert Kennedy, and the history in which she participated.
Research also consisted of Rory and her staff combing through home movies, newsreel archives, and some 16,000 photographs her mother kept in her house in Virginia. Rory points out that the family's "home movies" include footage shot by filmmakers like D A Pennebaker, Robert Drew, Charles Guggenheim, and family friend Red Fay, a former undersecretary of the Navy. Much of the material has never been seen by the public.
"I spent a year focusing exclusively on this film," Rory says. "I went into it with a pretty solid understanding of my mother, what the 'beats' of her life were. But I had never seen a lot of the archival footage. It was a huge amount of information, some of it revealing, moving, touching, but then some of it very difficult to watch emotionally."
Rory knew she wanted to include some famous stories about her mother, like the time she was accused of stealing a neighbor's horse. Some archival material was so powerful that it prompted her to question her mother more closely about it, like a trip to Poland that the family made in 1966.
For other incidents, like the Cuban missile crisis, Rory had to decide how much viewers today would know about events 50 years in the past. "My goal was not to explain those events, but to create enough context so that if you don't fully understand them, you still understood what was at stake," she says. "I wanted the film to stay sort of agenda-less, but there are pitfalls everywhere, there are temptations to go into details, into greater depth about an event, or tell a side story about them."
Some incidents, like the "Tiny Ripple of Hope" speech Robert Kennedy delivered in South Africa in June 1966, couldn't be included because the staff couldn't find appropriate footage.
Inevitably, Ethel has to come to grips with several traumatic events. Ethel's responses helped determine how the film handles these moments. "When she says, 'Let's move on' when I'm asking her about Daddy, I think that's a really poignant moment," Rory explains. "It says volumes about how she feels and how she's gotten through difficult times in her life."
Ethel has its share of lighthearted touches, like the time Robert Kennedy slid down a White House bannister, or the family's pet seal Sammy, who would eat fish and then spit out their eyes.
"I definitely learned a lot making this," Rory admits. "What I'm trying to do in the film is balance our personal life as a family, and the culture of that family, with these more historical events that so many of us went through together as a country. And then for me, it was also the opportunity to sit down and ask my mother, and my siblings, every question I ever wanted to ask."
Rory Kennedy is understandably guarded while answering questions. For years her family has been beset by both tragedy and gossip. Innocent remarks have been misconstrued, motives questioned, actions criticized. On some levels, Ethel is the chance to not just reintroduce a fascinating figure to the public, but to set the record straight about what the Kennedys helped accomplish.
Ethel has screened at 25 film festivals. For Rory Kennedy the most interesting response to her film has come from younger viewers. "It's been pretty amazing," she says. "There's nothing in their memory or knowledge of the sheer change that could come about by people protesting, going out into the streets, really changing the direction of the country and feeling empowered to do so."
She also points to the level of leadership in an earlier era. "You could really feel like those leaders were looking out for the interests of the people, they were willing to make decisions, risk their political capital, because they believed strongly in ideals, in the best interests of our country."
Kennedy's next project, a documentary for the PBS series "American Experience" about the final days of the war in Vietnam, will examine what happens when those ideals sour.